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Automatic garden (yes, you read correctly) pays off big

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For two years I had promised myself a visit to this beautiful Bucks County region of Pennsylvania to see, among other things, the low-work, high-productivity garden of Derek Fell. It was worth the effort.

Alhough it was mid-September and the garden was past its best, the evidence of a plentiful harvest was still obvious.

Mr. Fell is a long-established horticultural consultant, writer, and photographer. Among other things he planned the White House kitchen garden in the days when President Ford was talking up back-yard food production in his bite-the-bullet talks to the nation. He's also the author of several books.

The point is, Mr. Fell's duties take him away from home a good deal and the time he can devote to his garden is a fraction of what he would like it to be. That's why he decided two years ago to automate his garden. It was either automate or cut his garden down to a sliver of its former size.

Most important, his new approach was both simple and inexpensive.

Those two readily available, and still relatively inexpensive, products - black plastic and drip irrigation hose - made it all possible. As Mr. Fell puts it: ''By making my garden automatic, I achieved greater success from less work. It allowed me to plant a bigger-than-normal garden and to grow and harvest vegetables, such as sweet corn and cantaloupes, that previously had been difficult for me to grow.

''Everything in the garden grew bigger and more flavorful than before.''

In short, gardener Fell got better-than-expected results from automation so that he would ''continue the practice even if I had all the time in the world to garden.'' The records he kept - retail prices at time of harvest - show a $695 return on an $85 investment during the 1980 season.

Here is how the automatic garden was made:

Fell chose a sunny site with good drainage and tilled over an area, 20 by 42 feet, adding lime to his somewhat acid soil (add sulfur if yours is an alkaline soil) and a sprinkling of granular 5-10-5 fertilizer. To this he added an inch of well-rotted compost and tilled it to further enrich the soil and improve it.

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